Plagiarism Versus Inspiration

The greater design community (I use the word “community” very loosely in this context, I assure you), generally linked together through the wonders of the internet, is an amazing entity. It’s quite unlike a lot of the other creative circles I run in. I suppose every group of people united around a singular cause or task has its share of idiosyncrasies, but designers are a STRIKINGLY different set of people than my counterparts who write or create music.

The main area I see this in is the design community’s knack for jumping the gun on calling people out for what they perceive to be plagiarism (or ripping someone off, to put it less eloquently). In no other artistic discipline have I ever seen this occur so frequently, violently, and, unfortunately, ignorantly. 

There are a number of unique factors when I try to look at the situation objectively. There are more and more people involved in this industry now who, like me, didn’t go to school for this, don’t have a degree, and continue to learn everyday in the very public forum of the web. Even more telling, the sheer volume of design easily available and connected through the internet is probably only rivaled by music in it’s accessibility now. This means we, as designers, come into contact with more work than we ever have. Between our insanely visually-overloaded culture and the amount of time that I spend online everyday, there’s no way of really quantifying the amount of design and art i’m taking in on a daily basis. I know that the things I take in visually are going to come out in some form or fashion eventually. Hopefully, those inspirations will come out in a way that is uniquely mine, despite its outside influence. This was summed up well by Chuck Anderson (an artist I unashamedly enjoy, am inspired by, and have ironically been recently accused of plagiarizing, much to Chuck’s own amusement) in the recent issue of The Royal Magazine:

I’ve always tried to live by this rule: be inspired, not affected. There are some great artists out there. The key is to let what they do inspire you, and for you to take that inspiration and apply it to your own work. Not to apply it to your own copy of their work. Don’t be affected. Don’t let what someone else does set a standard for what you have to do.

I think it’s an apt description to call the design community claustrophobic. All this closeness and saturation and the very real smallness of the web have led to a sort of hysterical mindset that fosters an environment for people who troll around the internet with no other purpose than to find designers and publically shame them for borrowing any element or technique from other designers. (I wrote a post about this sort of pervasive negative attitude a few weeks ago). But more often than not, as with every other artistic endeavor in every other artistic discipline, the supposed “originator” didn’t invent that element or technique either. I think what we have is a severly misplaced fondness for our own imagined ingenuity. 

Let’s get specific, shall we? If I use an outer glow layer style in Photoshop (something that has been quite “trendy” lately and a technique i’m guilty of using at certain times for certain pieces), then SOMEONE is going to say i’m ripping off No Pattern or Electric Heat or [insert name of artist that YOU think I plagiarize]. Now, back up from it all for a bit and try to look at the situation objectively. The outer glow layer style is an easily-accessible feature of EVERY SINGLE COPY OF PHOTOSHOP since 6.0 released in 2002. And now, suddenly it seems, this feature can no longer be used without being accused of plagiarism. I’m not by any means trying to wash my hands of claiming inspiration from other artists or using techniques they’ve used (and written tutorials on in Computer Arts Magazine), but what i’m getting at is the faulty line of logic that critiques like those are based on. Just because one person has “done that” doesn’t mean it’s off limits to others now. How far do you want to take that line of reasoning? Pretty soon no one would be able to use the color red. Or the typeface Helvetica. That’s placing ownership on tools and techniques that anyone can use, and then crying foul when someone else puts it into use.

That thinking doesn’t fly in any other artistic discipline. No one goes to see Monte Montgomery play, walks up to him after a mind-blowing showing of musical genius and guitar-wizardry and says, “You loser, stop biting off Stevie Ray and Mark Knoplfer and Lindsay Buckingham… you’re completely unoriginal.” No, that’s ridiculous. We seem to love seeing musicians whose influences come out in their original music to make something unique. We embrace the movements in the painting world that spawned multiple artists with similar styles and techniques who made wholly new and unique pieces, even among their peers. But not designers. We demand something fresh and new and exciting every second of the day. The problem is, not only is there not really anything new, but our entire perception of originality is probably skewed.

I had someone rip my source code on this blog one time and post the site as their own work, complete with “I worked so hard on this last night” musings. I called him out. That was a clear case of plagiarism and there is really no excuse for it. It’s an unfortunately frequent occurrence. However, it’s not as frequent as the amount of times I see the word “rip” appear online in reference to perceived plagiarism. It’s rampant, wide-scale, uneducated nonsense. 

Am I inspired by my peers? Yes. Does my work often have the same look and feel or visual elements as theirs? Sometimes. Is it intentional? Most of the time, no. Am I affected by their work to the extent that it changes my perception of how I need to make art? I hope not. But i’m also still new to this. I’ve been designing for about three years and i’m still learning the fundamental, basic aspects of doing what I do. I want to learn, and I want to make good art. But I wish the design community would spend more time doing those things, building friendships within the community with their peers and mentors, being humble (for once), and not worrying about where they’re pulling their inspiration from as much as coming up with better ideas than they had last week. 

I feel pretty inadequate to talk about any of this, so i’d love to hear some of your thoughts on the subject.